Flashback Friday: Electricity

Inside the world’s nervous system.
Flashback Friday: Electricity

In this week’s edition of Flashback Friday, we’re republishing Glenn O’Brien’s August, 1978 story about Electricity.

This is about vibes. My vibes and your vibes, but also its vibes. It is the power system, the world electro-network—millions of miles of hot wire carrying the juice to every corner of the globe.

The only time we talk about these vibes is when we get worried about them disappearing. We need that power. We need it to run our TVs, radios, washing machines, microwave ovens, air conditioners, stereos, lights, Christmas trees, razors, whirlpool baths, etc. What would we do without it?

But now things are looking bad. The fuel is running out, and everybody agrees that things just wouldn’t be the same without the power. It’s a big problem. We don’t understand it. But that’s because we didn’t think too much about it in the first place. So maybe the thing to do now is to try and understand it. We should listen. Maybe it’s talking to us.

The Big Picture

It was around long before us. Before anything. But it took us a while to get the picture. As usual, some of the smart people saw it coming. In 1851 Nathaniel Hawthorne laid out the plan in his heroic novel The House of the Seven Gables:

Then there is electricity—the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence….Is it a fact—or have I dreamt it—that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it?

It didn’t even take much imagination to see that electrical systems would create a world nervous system. After all, electricity had been modeled on natural phenomenon—current discovered when Galvani’s charged wire made a dead frog jump again. And by 1920 everybody had it. But the details would be left to science and imagination.

And so a totally new world was created with this electro-network. It was infinitely smaller. Communications that once took days or weeks now took minutes. And the forms of communication drastically altered the form and content of human communication.

This has been elaborately analyzed by Marshall McLuhan and his followers. The principal point of McLuhan’s media vision is that “electric circuitry is an extension of the central nervous system,” which is making the world a global village, moving toward a world culture. All that remains is for humankind to understand the system and our intelligence to control it.

And this seems like a pretty good idea. For even if one yearns for a simple, natural, harmonious existence, it is probably too late to turn the system off. It started as a novelty, but now we need it. Without the juice the cities don’t work, the factories don’t work, the farms don’t work. Electricity is not only the key to a space-age future, it is essential for the maintenance of the complicated, super-populated world we’re now living in.

But then again, there may be some other bugs here, bugs we haven’t considered yet. There hasn’t been much hard thought on the actual physiological effects of this massive electronic brain on our petite organic sense circuits. Do our brains adjust in mysterious ways to TV scanning patterns, telephone and radio frequencies or the 60 cycles of the alternating current surrounding us? This remains a mystery to science. The experiments are just beginning, and we, the first electrical people, are the test subjects.

Bad Vibes

We’re starting to find out what will kill you. Leaky microwave ovens will do you in. Radioactivity can be hazardous to your health. But what about the myriad wavelengths along the vibratory spectrum? We’ve surrounded ourselves with vibes we don’t know much about.

Recent studies have shown that one fact of life, fluorescent lighting, may be bad medicine. It can cause hyperactivity in children and has been shown to turn hamster cells cancerous.

Psychologists have determined that the electrically charged particles in the air, ions, have a great influence over human mood. Thunderstorms change moods, but so do the cities’ electrical environments. The negative ions abounding in the subway have been scientifically determined to cause bad vibes, while the ions at the Plaza Hotel are much more conducive to good vibes.

But the most alarming research of late has been the result of farmers’ outrage over high-tension lines, the big conduits that carry power from the rural plants to the cities. If you visit the big lines you can feel their effect. Underneath a 765-kilovolt line, the kind that powers New York, you notice that the hair on your body stands up. Your ears buzz. You feel light-headed. If you happen to be holding a fluorescent bulb it’ll light right up.

The farmers who live along the lines have noticed plenty of other effects. They got shocks on their tractors. They get shocked on ladders and on the roof. The kids get shocked on swings. It can put you in a strange mood, and that goes for the cows, too.

As a result of the anti-line agitation in upstate New York, researchers at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Syracuse conducted tests on the biological effects of electrical fields of the strength created by the high-tension lines. The hospital had been experimenting with these effects for some time and had discovered that certain electrical fields could stimulate healing in broken bones.

They found that fields of the strength generated by the lines did in fact alter organisms exposed to them. Animals experienced stunted growth, altered body and blood chemistry, cardiovascular mutation. Many of the symptoms induced closely resembled the classic symptoms of stress. Similar tests in the Soviet Union have led to the creation of new safety standards in the Soviet high-tension industry, drastically limiting workers’ exposure to these fields.

Recently the Defense Department thought it had the solution to one of its most pressing problems: how to let our nuclear subs know when it was time to enter World War III. The idea was to build an antenna six feet underground covering 34,000 square kilometers (13,000 square miles) of northern Wisconsin, charged up with 14,000 volts. After residents on the planned antennaland became worried that all the juice might do something, the navy agreed to test out the idea. They found that the electrical field created by such an antenna, about one-thousandth of that which exists under a high-tension line, caused the development of mutant fruit flies, beagles with hypertension and other unpleasantries. The navy dropped the project fast.

But these megawatt-megavolt force-fields aren’t the only concern. Now researchers are beginning to suspect that even weak little fields can kick psychic ass. Experiments at UCLA’s Brain Research Institute have shown, among other things, that low-power, low-frequency fields cause monkeys to respond to stimuli at shorter intervals than they had been conditioned to respond at. In other words, the juice speeds ’em up. From this the researchers inferred that these common, everyday electrical influences could speed up the old human biological clock. (Could this be the key to punk rock? More on this later.)

By 1973 the same UCLA brain team discovered that some very high frequency fields—but weak ones—can directly influence brain waves. They found that they could sync kitty cats in with radio waves, actually “sharpening” brain waves and making brain-wave patterns last a lot longer than usual. These VHF waves are just like those that bring us “I Dream of Jeannie” and “The Munsters,” but they were specifically tuned to the same frequency and amplitude as cat mentation. There’s no real evidence yet that the radio-TV zap field we all live in is sharpening and prolonging our brain waves, but then again, why not?

The globe is a big magnet—and this charge is responsible for a lot of effects, some of which make life possible.

We have known about the earth’s magnetic properties for eons. It has been widely suggested that there are magnetic power centers on the globe, and many of these were spiritual power centers where such features as pyramids and astrological timepieces were built. It is known that the ancient Druids mapped magnetic force lines and believed that certain sites possessed healing power.

Nikola Tesla, who perfected the use of alternating current, the induction motor and the electromagnetic generator, had a lot of even bigger ideas. One was to electrically illuminate the sky so that ships could see their way at night. Another was to control the earth’s magnetic field. Tesla failed in both endeavors, but late one night, while listening in to the static on the planet’s radio network, he thought he heard something strangely regular and intelligent. He came to be convinced that it was radio greetings from extraterrestrials.

Even though nobody had put much of an effort into seizing control of the earth’s magnetic field since Tesla, in 1975 scientists at Stanford University found out we were doing it anyway. Radio experiments conducted from stations in Canada and Antarctica, near the magnetic poles, showed that the magnetic field was being considerably disturbed by concentrations of high-voltage transmission lines. But rather than expressing concern over messing with mother nature, the researchers revived Tesla’s scheme, proposing that human control over this field could lead to improved radio and TV reception by counteracting the disturbances caused by solar flares and other cosmic events.

So welcome to the wonderful world of mutation. Mutant people inhabiting a mutant planet. The juice might have started as a novelty, but now it’s dead serious. Again, it seems too late to stop it. We’re totally wired. It’s either learn to live with it or… or what?

The Man from Past

In 1973 David Walter McDermott, fresh out of college, hit New York City with great expectations. He had read about New York society, and now he wanted to enter. David had expected something out of Busby Berkeley—what he found was a lot of hard-working ambitious people spending their evenings watching TV and talking on the phone. So he decided to do something about it and create the kind of society he had dreamed about. With a group of college chums he founded Le Salon D’Art Societe. Installed in an Upper West Side brownstone, the group set about restoring the premises to a reasonable facsimile of its original decor—plush furniture, heavy draperies, ornate wallpaper and moldings, oil paintings, tea service, hat racks, umbrella stands, moose heads and candelabras with real candles. They walked the streets of New York dressed with style, the style of 1931. It wasn’t easy. McDermott worked as a messenger for a meat-packing company, and often clients didn’t understand his starched white collars, suspenders and straw hat.

Soon the Salon was socializing for dear life, holding lavish teas, balls and Sunday socials and inviting New York scene makers they hoped would be sympathetic. Many were, and the Salon gained a reputation bordering on notorious. But it was hard work, trying to bring back the past and holding jobs at the same time. So after a few brief seasons, the Salon was closed.

Its founder, however, didn’t give up; he just moved on to the next phase. David decided to try country life and moved to the farm of a friend, Lawrence Broadmoor, who had been living in the past even longer than David. Broadmoor lived absolutely and authentically in the 1920s, supporting himself by selling and servicing player pianos. David found that country life agreed with him. It was easier to forget about the horrors of modern times. He didn’t expect much more sympathy for his ideas in the country—modern farms are as technologically mutated as the city. But it was a good place to think.

David became more serious. He began to realize that progress had been a big mistake and that the only viable solution to world problems was self-conscious regression. Oddly enough he found a few sympathetic ears, and even allies, in the conservative countryside. Farmers were pissed off. And one of the big things they were pissed about was power. They had nuclear power plants in their backyards so that city folk could sit in hermetically sealed towers cooled to 68 degrees, punching keys on electric typewriters.

And not only did they have to worry about core meltdowns rendering the north 40 deadly for 10,000 years: there were also the power lines. The crime-ridden, smut-infested, heroin-addicted Big Apple needs 5,800,000,000 watts just to keep on keepin’ on. And all that juice was up North, so the power planners drew some lines on the map from the power stations to the city, hundreds of miles of lines, and if there was a farm in the way it was soon traversed by high-tension lines carrying from 345,000 to 765,000 volts.

There was no way the farmer could win against the power companies’ eminent domain. The power had to go through—and the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

One night David was sitting up on a hill looking at the stars. It was so quiet you could hear the chirp of the crickets and the buzzing of the power line. The stars were even more beautiful to David because he knew that they were talking to him, transmitting information from the cosmos just as they had for millions of years, conferring on him their spiritual knowledge. But David realized that something was in the way. Something like the buzzing of the line. The human spirit was so much like the crystal radio, vibrating with the music of the distant spheres. And now these stellar broadcasts were being jammed by the enormous vibratory networks—networks that existed for such sublime acts as cooking a roast in two minutes with mystery rays, keeping innumerable carcasses frozen solid, opening cans with fewer finger movements. What stupidity. And besides that, the lines were so ugly.

The next day a large part of the surrounding countryside experienced a power blackout. Out on the highway in front of the farm was a huge mass of electrical wire. David left it there where it would be convenient for the power company to pick it up. He had no idea what a commotion his final act of restoring the farm to its 1920s condition would create.

David decided it was time to get back to New York, a much better place for becoming a world political leader. Now David is squatting in a beautifully designed yet condemned building in a more or less condemned Puerto Rican neighborhood on the Lower East Side. The building doesn’t have electricity. “But,” says David, “I don’t miss it. I have my crank phonograph for music. I’m a vegetarian—I don’t eat meat or milk or eggs so there’s nothing to spoil. I’m getting a wireless radio. And light—how much light do you need? I never use it, except if I come home in the dark and want to get dressed or do something, but most of the time I’m out socializing. I like candles. They’re very romantic and very inexpensive. Benjamin Franklin thought it was ridiculous that people would stay up hours and hours into the darkness of the night and yet there were hours and hours in the morning that were not even used. Society should gear itself to get up much earlier.”

David gets up early and sets about his business. He doesn’t have a job—he pays no rent, utilities, phone. Vegetables are cheap. David’s business now entirely involves calling on people. He drops in on social calls, just like he used to. But now his conversation is extremely political and politically extreme. His politics resemble other radical ecologists, animal liberationists, anarchists and militant vegetarians, including solid logical arguments against “progress,” but David takes it at least a step further. He sees the breakdown of modern society as a spiritual crusade.

“I believe electricity is psychologically harmful. I believe that the way our society is wrapped in wire is the same thing as when little children wrap a nail in wire and form an electromagnet. I believe that New York City and the country and the world at large are becoming an electromagnet. And I believe that this magnetic power is blocking out spiritual energy. I think we’re losing contact with the information and the genius that comes from the universe. I believe that we’re suffering. During the blackout it was obvious that people were not turned off, they were turned on. Suddenly for the first time people began acting the way people with common sense act. For example, all the Negro ladies uptown raided the supermarket like they’ve always wanted to do. They interviewed this lady on television and they said, ‘How could you do this? How could you raid your own supermarket?’ And she took this package of Pampers out of her bag and said, ‘See these Pampers? They advertise Pampers, get your Pampers on television. Well I didn’t have the money for Pampers. I got my Pampers now. I got enough Pampers to last me all year.’”

After a stage of utter collapse and anarchy, David believes that an intelligent movement will arise to restore society to a sensible state. At first this state will resemble the early twentieth century.

“In the beginning part of this century the world was already built. Everything was here! All it needed was to be dusted, the brass to be polished, new canvas awnings every ten years. All it needed was to be maintained. The paving-block streets were here since the 1830s and 40s. But no! They had to rip them all up and put black tar down, black tar to absorb the heat. So we covered the world in tar.”

Once future people get used to the near past, David suggests, we may prepare for even earlier and happier times. After a few hundred years of antidevelopment he sees a day when white Americans will get a hankering for Europe and blacks for Africa. “Okay, Indians!” David screams. “You’ve got it.”

Jamming on the Astral Plane

David Walter McDermott is not the only would-be world prophet concerned about the electrical system blocking out the wisdom of the stars. Norman Mailer, a former candidate for mayor of New York, took up the issue in Of a Fire on the Moon (Little, Brown & Co., 1971), his report on NASA’s man on the moon program.

For the astronauts, conquest of the moon was a job to do. For Mailer it was an enormously mystical act—elevating humankind to a divine or Satanic level. He wasn’t sure which. In fact he was mystified, for although enormously moved by this human accomplishment, he was equally awed by the awelessness of the men who performed it. This act of man made him think more about God.

What now was the condition of God? Was He trapped in the wound of nature, severed from our existence as completely as the once exquisite balances of the shattered ecology? Had that vision He wished to carry across the universe depended altogether upon human mind and flesh in sensuous communication with nature? Had radio-by-machine been the cancer of communications?… What if some real exchange between insects, trees, crops, and grains, between animals and men, had lived with real if most distorted power in the first hours of history? What if that Vision of the Lord which had gone out to voyage among the stars had obtained the power to be carried up by the artwork of a bounteous earth exquisite in resonances of all psyches in its field? What if radio, technology, and the machine had smashed the most noble means of presenting the Vision to the Universe?

On every level, ecology studies the damage done by technology to nature, attempting to correct after the fact the consequences of myriad blind steps toward progress. But the question raised by Mailer is meta-ecology, a question so large that it challenges the notion of progress at its root.

Has our progress been our undoing? Specifically, has the creation of electronic media destroyed, or begun to destroy, vibratory mechanisms of the human mind of which we have no knowledge?

Of course astrology, or messages from the stars, are widely regarded as primitive superstition. But what about telepathy and psychic effects? Science has begun to take such matters seriously. How does the mind work? Can it transmit information like a radio, tuning into other minds on some kind of psychic radio band? We don’t know.

There’s no doubt these days that we are made of vibrations, and already some of these have been mapped, so that ultramodern California yogis can sit around measuring the fruits of their meditations on biofeedback machines, monitoring their alpha waves all the way to nirvana. Is higher consciousness merely a different set of waves?

If the electronic network does indeed cause interference with as yet unmapped levels of the psyche, might we not have actually constructed the mechanism of hell’s fire? Maybe, huh? When the prophets and poets spoke of hellfire, what was it? For Milton, “A dungeon horrible, on all sides round, As one great furnace, flamed; yet from those flames No light, but rather darkness visible…”

The Man from Future

Kraftwerk is Germany’s top pop group. They’re not really what you’d call rockers. What they’ve done is to fuse rock, Afro-disco rhythms and hundreds of years of classical tradition with the electronic machine. They don’t jump around the stage with guitars. They don’t have guitars. Kraftwerk is machine music. But people love it. You can really dance to Kraftwerk, but the music isn’t just moronic disco. It makes you think.

Kraftwerk means “power plant,” and electrical power is what their music is all about. One of their songs is called “Radioactivity,” and the boys sing “radioactivity…. it’s in the air for you and me.” By radioactivity they mean not only gamma rays and the by-products of fission and fusion, but all of the electromagnetic effects of technoworld.

What Kraftwerk seems to be suggesting is that there may be some purpose to all of this. That the mutant electromagnetic fields we inhabit might do us some good. So I asked Kraftwerk if that’s what they were getting at. But they went one better. “It’s not a matter of us saying it’s good or bad,” says Ralf “Doktor” Hutter. “We are not into morality, but realism.”

Electricity is here and we’re going to have to learn to live with it. But, says Kraftwerk, the changes have already begun. They feel that people living in highly charged urban environs have already mutated as a result of exposure to the power. The TV babies are a new race, with a higher level of energy. Consequently Kraftwerk never goes to the country on vacation—the lack of artificial vibes tends to make them sick.

Kraftwerk’s philosophy seems to be the only alternative to the kind of longing for anarchy and destruction of the system advanced by Mr. McDermott of Le Salon D’Art. They are futurists. They believe in progress. Electric power will change us, but if we learn to control it we can control our own mutation. “We have to adjust our brains to this world,” they say. And they see music using the electromagnetic spectrum as a way of tuning us up to our new electrical environment.

Could this be the dark secret of rock and roll? Is there some obvious yet secret connection between the beat of electric music and the beat of the machine? Is rock the intelligence, the program that will enable us to live inside the supercharged electroworld?

Adults don’t understand how the kids can stand all that noise, noise that medical experts assure us will make them deaf and daft. But maybe they are unable to understand it physiologically because it’s the world of another vibration. Maybe the volume and electric power, the sound that makes every internal organ vibrate, is a way of harmonizing the body with urban electro-power.

Is heavy metal a saving grace? Long before the Marshall amp was invented, Antonin Artaud, the French visionary poet and actor, dreamed of a theater that would have the raw power now practiced as heavy metal rock and roll. In 1932 he wrote in the First Manifesto of the Theater of Cruelty:

Musical Instruments: They will be treated as objects and as part of the set. Also, the need to act directly and profoundly upon the sensibility through the organs invites research, from the point of view of sound, into qualities and vibrations of absolutely new sounds, qualities which present-day musical instruments do not possess…. Research is also required, apart from music, into instruments and appliances, which, based upon special combinations or new alloys of metal, can attain a new range and compass, producing sounds or noises that are unbelievably piercing.

If Artaud had lived to see Iggy and the Stooges perform Raw Power 40 years after this writing, he would have no doubt felt like the real godfather of punk rock. But there wasn’t any rock and roll for Artaud, and he got his dose of electricity from forced electroshock in the lunatic asylum.

The Big Picture Revisited

Like we said, they don’t know just how it works. But it works. Scientists are pretty good at admitting it when they don’t know something, but that doesn’t stop them from bounding ahead.

But poets and philosophers and mystical types are often able to summon up quite a bit of certainty, challenging structures on painfully obvious, impossibly difficult levels. Gurdjieff, one of the boss mystics of the twentieth century and a great showman to boot, wasn’t afraid to take on the problem of electricity and have fun at the same time.

Chapter 45 of G.I. Gurdjieff’s colossal Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson is entitled “In the opinion of Beelzebub, man’s extraction of electricity from Nature, and its destruction during its use, is one of the chief causes of the shortening of the life of man.” Gurdjieff’s stories are presented as the tale of an interstellar traveler Beelzebub, who arrived in our solar system on the transspaceship Karnak in 1921, observing with bemusement and disgust the daffy doings on planet Earth. Among the most monstrous acts observed on the planet was “the destruction of the Ominpresent cosmic-substance Okidanokh.” Beelzebub explained that what man calls electricity is “the result of the blending and the mutual destruction of two parts of this omnipresent substance.” He noted that at various times in the history of this troublesome planet, man had succeeded in extracting various forms of energy from this cosmic substance for “naively egoistic” aims, and that never had the destruction been as great as during the current electrical age.

Gurdjieff doesn’t give us the formula for Okidanokh, the mystery juice. But, as they used to say of McLuhan in the ’60s, what if he’s right?

The editor of Chemistry magazine, Theodor Benfey, has been thinking along lines that are similar, maybe wildly similar, but who knows?

Many years ago I started wondering what’s so special about electricity. Why do all electric circuits seem to require metal wires? Are metals so unique? What are they but a lattice of positive ions through which negative particles can flow? Must stationary particles be positive and moving ones negative? And are electrons the only candidates for the moving role?

Physics has come up with some new toys called ion-exchange resins. These transmit the flow of particles other than electrons—protons, negative ions and other particles. The editor wonders, “Could we have protic circuits as well as electrical circuits—making the world a bit more symmetrical?”

It’s promising when a scientist thinks about such grand symmetries. They could be the key to making the system work in a way that is not destructive to nature. Mr. Benfey is now eagerly anticipating the discovery of “generalized electricity,” something which might even be good for us. He concludes, “I suspect we have protic or even more generalized currents zooming all through our bodies, yet there isn’t a piece of metal inside us. [It is suggested] that ionic currents fed into us might produce all sorts of new sensations.” Maybe we won’t have to head back to the dark ages after all, not if Okidanokh is right around the corner. But in the meantime, keep listening to your rock and roll station.

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